The Japanese are masters of patience (see: the forty-seven Ronin, the exhausting process of making ramen broth out of pork bones, that faithful little dog, Hachi). But, when it comes to grilling, they don't do the low-and-slow-then-let-it-rest thing. They do yakitori.
Yakitori traditionally means grilled chicken, but it has come to refer generally to the beautiful ritual of sliding the prized parts of the animal (little chicken hearts, fatty pork jowls, tender octopus tentacles) onto skewers, brushing on a layer of tare or sake, rotating them above an open fire until moist and charred in all the right places—and eating immediately.
"There is just something wonderful about getting that meat just a minute after it comes off the grill," says Jamison Blankenship of perpetually packed Prospect Heights ramen-ya Chuko and the newer Bar Chuko. "It stays crispy, juicy and tender."
New York is having a small yakitori renaissance, with newcomers like Bar Chuko and Ganso Yaki on the way. Here are our favorite places to eat off a stick:
Bar Chuko, Prospect Heights
The ex-Morimoto cooks behind the original ramen-centric Chuko are at it again, this time with a yakitori grill. Blankenship and his partners tinker with tradition by rigging up a three-foot by three-foot square infrared grill with steel rods to hold up the skewers. Octopus is braised in red wine ($5); grilled eggplant comes with a dollop of miso with whipped puréed carrot ($3). To drink: a play on chu-hai, that Japanese concoction of juice and shochu, adding Aperol to grapefruit ($7) and ginger to orange juice ($6). For all the invention, we love their faithful renditions of tsukune (Japanese chicken meatballs) piped into shishito ($4) and pork jowl scatted with scallions ($5).
Skewers in waiting at Bar Chuko
Yakitori Totto, Midtown West
Save the warming chicken-y ramen at Totto Ramen for a colder day and instead head to its grill-focused sister. Any place named "Totto" is bound to have a wait, so your best bet is to show up early (a.k.a. 5:30 p.m.). One man helms the yard-long Japanese electric grill and, once your orders are in, he simply spritzes with some sake, dusts with a little pink Himalayan sea salt and carefully rotates each caramelizing chicken oyster ($3) or fat-dripping chicken neck ($3.50) until it's reached prime deliciousness. If you can, sit at the bar, where conversation is happily interrupted by a quiet yet forceful "excuse me" every time your skewers are ready.
Torishin, Upper East Side
Finding a traditional binch?tan-fueled grill is hard to come here in the city, but they've got the real stuff at this old-school Michelin-starred yakitori. The chefs proudly chuck in the Japanese even-burning white charcoal under the grates and cook up one of the more affordable omakase menus around town. A mere $65 gets you a wide sampling of skewers, from chicken parts (knee gristle! neck meat!) to quail eggs, duck-wrapped asparagus and grilled avocado half filled with, what else, dashi.
Yakitori Taisho, East Village
Let us not forget the ultimate cheapo late-night spot for hungry NYU students and cooks just getting off their shift. It's cramped, noisy and all you need to do is point at bad photos of what you want off the menu. This is what drunk night snack bliss looks like. Order skewers of hot, crackly chicken skin ($1.25), velvety beef tongue ($2.50) and blackened shishito pepper ($1.25) and wash it all down with more Japanese beer on tap.
Coming soon: Tetsu and Ganso Yaki
Word on the street is that Masa Takayama (yes, that Masa) is planning on opening a grill-centric place in the city. No updates yet on where or when Tetsu will open, but let's just say we're excited. Meanwhile, in downtown Brooklyn, Harris Salat and Tadashi Ono are already well underway with Ganso Yaki, their street-food-focused follow-up to Ganso Ramen, set to open in September. Ono is cooking up tsukune he learned from a yakitori master in Nagoya, and Salat's all excited about the "10,000-year-old tare" they're working on. "What it means is that we're creating a live tare," Salat says. "We're going to be preserving it with soy sauce and deepening the flavor with chicken fat."
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